On Character Names

Notice any patterns in this list?
James Bond
Jason Bourne
Jack Bauer
Jack Reacher
Jack Ryan
John Rambo
Johnny Ricco
John McClane
Jon Snow

Aside from the fact that they all start with the letter J, there’s a certain pattern in the naming that seems to resonate in the action hero genre. Ian Flemming, for example, is reported to have named his iconic spy after the American ornithologist James Bond. At the time Flemming was looking for a name that was plain and dull sounding. He wanted to create a neutral, anonymous figure at the center of stories that were otherwise full of exotic action. At the same time, the character needed to be a blunt instrument wielded by a clandestine government department.

So you end up with James, which following WW2 was one of the top 20 names in the UK (in fact it appears to have been in the top 20 for the last century)–a common name that could be nearly anonymous. But then this was coupled with Bond. That last name can evoke images of either money, or shackles, perhaps both at once. It is a single blunt syllable. It resonates so well that the line:
“Bond. James Bond.”
has become an instantly recognizable institution in and of itself.

Going back to that list, I see quite similar patterns emerging… a common first name coupled with a blunt one or two syllable last named that evokes action. It might almost be a comic book onomatopoeia : Boom! Bam! Bang! Look at the Mission Impossible franchise. The lead character: Ethan Hunt.

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Here’s another list, this one of heroines from science fiction and urban fantasy:
Katniss Everdeen
Honor Harrington
Kris Longknife
Ellen Ripley
Beatrice “Tris” Prior
Hermione Granger
Annabeth Chase

There’s a similar pattern. Though in some cases it’s mixed up, you still have one part that at least feels “common” and another part that’s more exotic, that evokes a more vivid imagery.

This kind of pattern resonates with readers on a deeper scale because on one hand there’s something about the name that’s familiar, making it accessible. On the other hand there’s some contrast that gives it a unique flare, making the name memorable, and in many cases even aiding the characterization.

One other piece of advice that’s important in naming characters is that no character exists in a vacuum. As an author you have to consider the entire cast of your book. One trick a lot of authors use is to avoid having any two characters, at least main ones, with names that start with the same letter or that sound similar. This helps the reader to avoid confusion. (Interestingly George R.R. Martin turns this on its head and uses a small number of names and similarities between them to turn a relatively small number of names into a massive ensemble cast. I don’t recommend trying this for most writers though.)

Beyond the book you’re writing, no reader reads in a vacuum either. That’s why it’s so critically important for authors to read in their genre and learn who the popular characters are.